15 Profitable Career Habits You Should Start in College

October 10, 2012

At its best, college can often feel like a Never Never Land of fun, friends, and “the life of the mind.” Though we hesitate to burst that glorious sheltered bubble, it is unfortunately true that the transition out of college and into adult life can be a rocky one. Those students who begin to develop mature, self-directed working habits (above and beyond what’s required for a decent GPA) before they graduate are the ones who stand the best chance of easing their way into the working world without difficulty. Here are 15 lessons that are better learned the easy way, while still in the ivory tower, rather than as crash courses in the School of Hard Knocks.

  1. Keep a planner and calendar.

    Your calendar provides the backbone of your life. When you’re a teenager or young adult, there are periods when it might seem like you have few enough obligations that you can keep them in your head and still not miss appointments. All that means is, it’s the best possible time to begin off-loading those commitments onto a calendar. Get in the habit of using it consistently, and your unscheduled time will be even more care-free.

  2. Divide your time into blocks.

    This is the true secret to getting work finished instead of procrastinating (while you simultaneously freak out about how much you have left to do). Slow and steady wins the race. The Pomodoro Technique is one way, but longer chunks of an hour or two might work better for you. Work long enough to accomplish something, but not so long you burn out. Then reward yourself by doing something else (also for a set amount of time).

  3. Know when to “just say no.”

    We’re not referring here to drug or alcohol addictions, which you should address without shame or hesitation as soon as you suspect you might have one. Even healthy partiers can be tempted to overdo it in college. Nor is peer pressure always sinister; your friends can be well-meaning and still talk you into bad decisions, like playing Wii games all night when you have a paper due. Enjoy your social life but draw the line when you must.

  4. Don’t rely on all-nighters.

    Some people take pride in the fact that they can knock out an assignment in a single night’s work fueled by pressure and adrenaline. But it helps instill bad habits that don’t transfer well at all to the working world — and operating without sleep doesn’t get any easier on your body as you age.

  5. Set a regular bedtime, at least on weekdays.

    Recent research suggests that keeping a steady bedtime is an important factor for your health. Work with your regular circadian rhythms, not against them.

  6. Eat the most important meal of the day.

    That’s right, this important career habit is part of this balanced breakfast! Even if you’re more the type to roll out of bed and walk to class in pajamas, make the effort to hit the cafeteria first. Eating breakfast improves cognitive performance and gives you more energy for your day.

  7. Get a real apartment.

    Living in the dorms is great, but for at least one out of four years you ought to try getting your own place with a roommate or two. It will teach you all kinds of life lessons (often the hard way, of course) so you’ll be that much more ahead when you depart academia entirely.

  8. Learn how to shop for groceries.

    This is one reason to get your own pad. Learning to cook gives you a skill that will pay off for life, both financially and health-wise. The goal should be to shift your consumption as much as possible from takeout and packaged foods to ingredients you buy and prepare yourself, and the key to that is to have as wide as possible a repertoire of recipes with which you’re comfortable.

  9. Try taking on a side job.

    Many people have no choice in the matter and must work steadily to pay for school. Others are luckier and have support from parents, scholarships, or loans. But it’s still good to have beer money, and even if you don’t need the paychecks, it’s good to get comfortable with the idea of having a part-time gig for extra savings (or to pay off debt).

  10. Stay (or get) in shape; it will never be this easy again.

    Seriously, it won’t. Chances are you have access to a well-equipped and convenient gym, as well as intramural sports and other physical pastimes. Take advantage of it, and of your metabolism in its prime.

  11. Start regular check-ups while you’re still young and healthy.

    As with diet and exercise, annual physicals and biannual dental cleanings are lifelong preventive habits that will keep you in prime fighting condition to focus on your other ambitions. The days of young people going without health insurance are over. We all need to take responsibility for our own wellness, both for our own sake and each others’.

  12. Don’t count on extensions or incompletes.

    At most colleges, you can get away with a lot of unprofessional shenanigans that would never fly in the real world. Don’t take advantage of that unless you absolutely have to, because otherwise you’ll be depriving yourself of good habits that you’ll need later, when the authority figures in your life will be less indulgent.

  13. Maintain contacts and never burn bridges.

    Speaking of staying on your professors’ good sides, begin building relationships that can help you achieve your dreams. Within reason, do your best never to leave anyone with a bad taste in their mouths, whether exes or ex-bosses. For better or worse, interpersonal karma has its ways of playing itself out.

  14. Keep an organized file cabinet.

    Paper may seem outmoded, and you can always scan everything and back it up, but you’ll feel more comfortable keeping hard copies of anything you think you might want to have handy later. Buy a cabinet you won’t hate to use, and sort through it regularly, dividing everything into intuitive categories and tossing out what’s outdated or not needed.

  15. Do chores like clockwork.

    Every boy’s dorm room (some girls of course, but especially the guys) tends to boast the same topographical feature: a heaping, dirty mountain of laundry. Chores aren’t so bad if you have a routine you stick to; schedule an odd few hours to do laundry when you don’t have class (preferably a weekday afternoon when you won’t be competing with many others). The same goes for other chores, especially if you’re off campus; you can also prevent a lot of roommate fights and resentment if you have a clear and workable system.

Despite all this sage advice, college is a great time to goof around, and you don’t want to forget to have fun; in fact you should consider that a major priority at this stage of your life. But do your best to exercise some conscious control over your own growth and development now, so you can avoid a rude awakening later. Put this virtuous self-programming into effect before life forces you to, and your 20s will be a piece of cake!